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To Mask Or Not To Mask

Years ago, when David Blunkett was Minister of Education, I heard him in Any Questions on the radio. The panel was discussing school discipline and how it should be handled. An opinionated lady panelist stated, in superior tones implying that teachers were incompetent, that she would take the child and sit him in the naughty chair. To which Blunkett replied, “Madam, in many of the schools I visit, the child would pick up the naughty chair and throw it at you”, neatly exposing her ignorance of real-life challenges in schools today.

Most adults, even parents have no idea what school teaching is like. The challenge of controlling a class of thirty-odd lively teenagers all day is a quantum leap from two or three children at home. So when I hear in the news stories that parents are stressed coping with their offspring during Covid isolation, I have a wry smile. But when I hear of bureaucrats, politicians and even teaching unions requiring masks in all secondary schools, I frown. Clearly they don’t know or have forgotten how schools function and how teenagers behave. However, we will be good citizens and do what they ask.

Long ago a seminary trainer told me: “Teaching is a game in which the goal of the kids is to get the teacher’s goat; the goal of the teacher is not to let his goat be got”. I know which team Covid masks will favour!

My final year teaching in secondary school was as head of an art department. It was a tough inner-city school. To give you a flavour: during the year we discovered a group of fifth-year (year 10) boys running a protection racket on the younger kids. They were discovered because of unusual activity in a classroom once a week, on collection day. I had to abandon pottery lessons because I would find needles or razorblades secretly dropped in the clay bins, or finished work mysteriously elbowed off the shelf onto the floor. It became too dangerous and difficult.

This was the age of corporal punishment and caning was administered by department heads like me. I had a probationer (first year) art teacher and I put her in the classroom next to mine, with a connecting door between the rooms so I could monitor the noise or leave it open to let the kids see I was around. She was a small, slightly built young lady. One day I glanced through and saw a six-foot fifth-year aggressively confronting the woman, towering over her. We’d had problems with him before. I saw red. I got my cane from the cupboard and marched in. He saw me coming, steam escaping from my collar and hot fury in my eyes. The bully ran to the outside door, leading to a landing. I went after him. There followed a scene from a Dickens novel. Art rooms were on the top floor; I chased him down several flights of stairs, cane in hand, bellowing for him to stop and get what was coming to him. He reached the ground floor, and we raced up a corridor to a back door fire exit. He crashed out into the yard, me in hot pursuit brandishing the cane. He reached the school gates, beyond which I had no jurisdiction, turned round and yelled “I’m not coming back to this school as long as you’re still here!” and disappeared.

I’m ashamed of that now. Most of the time teachers put on an act when they’re angry, but this time I crossed the line. Something snapped. I think I’ve improved since. But the memory of that school persuades me that requiring teenagers to wear masks might not be entirely sensible or workable.

By the way, I’m conscious there is not a “Comments” place at the bottom of my posts. This is a technical issue that I’m working on (might be fixed with this post?) I would actually welcome comments from those who wish to do so. I’ll sort it as soon as I can.

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